Pasadena publisher launches a system for outsourcing local news

“I’m looking for individuals I can pay a lower rate to do a lot of work,” says Journtent founder James Macpherson

A publisher in Pasadena, CA, who said he received death threats when he started hiring workers in India to write local stories five years ago nevertheless has launched a business to help other local publishers start outsourcing.

James Macpherson, who founded local news site Pasadena Now nine years ago, launched a business called Journtent last week, just a month after the outsourcing company Journatic sparked panic in US newsrooms when it emerged that local stories outsourced to Journatic by the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle and others had been written abroad and then published with fake, American-sounding bylines. More recently, there have been reports of Journatic laying off staff and cancelling independent contracts as it tries to recover from the scandal.

“Journatic has done it (outsourcing) quite shabbily,” Macpherson told CJR. “I’m here to defend the concept.” Last week Macpherson wrote an op-ed for Street Fight, an online magazine that covers hyperlocal news, in which he called outsourcing “inevitable.”

Macpherson is not just experimenting with outsourcing. He’s also developing algorithms to streamline workflow and is working with Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing platform launched by Amazon in February that allows workers from anywhere in the world to sign up for gigs. Macpherson said that he hopes to sell his strategies for outsourced streamlining of local news coverage to other publishers in need of help.

As Mcpherson does at Pasadena Now, Journtent will pay writers, mostly from the Philippines and Mexico, to watch and transcribe livestreams of the community meetings and then write a story, often with editorial direction straight from the hyperlocal site. With that far-flung help at Pasadena Now, he explained, he is free to do more shoe-leather reporting.

“We have to cover a lot,” Macpherson said. “Sometimes as many as seven interviews in a day. This is how I solved the problem of time: I outsource virtually everything. I’m primarily looking for individuals who I can pay a lower rate to do a lot of work.”

Macpherson says he thoroughly copyedits every story before it is posted, and that only he and his wife, cofounder of the site, have the power to publish. “Factchecking must be totally controlled in the community,” he said. “There’s no way someone in Manilla can possibly understand what’s happening in Pasadena.”

That distinction, he says, is what sets him apart from Journatic, which employs reporters remotely to cover stories in local communities via phone. Macpherson compares his system to the old tradition of having a field reporter call in information to a rewrite man in the newsroom—though his rewrite men and women are often thousands of miles away. He recognizes that that’s an unattractive prospect for American journalists afraid for their jobs.

“The big institutions are against outsourcing—they’re afraid that publishers will reduce newsroom staffs,” he said.

Owners of other small, local news sites trying to deliver quality, comprehensive local coverage on tiny budgets and with few staff recognize the need to find alternate ways of working, but they remain skeptical that outsourcing is the best option.

“There is certainly room for better tools and systems,” said Dylan Smith, who owns and chairs LION, a new trade association of over 100 local news publishers. “There’s a lot of work that goes into local news that could be done programmatically, but journalism should not just be stenography. In general I would shy away from having people far away from a community trying to report on it.”

Macpherson, who worked in the garment industry for many years, says that outsourcing feels natural to him. “People will realize that it has real advantages,” he said. “The real lesson of Journatic is that outsourcing is not going to go away.”

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , ,